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10 Tips For How To Win NaNoWriMo (From An Author Who Won This Year)

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month takes place in November each year. It's a charity writing competition aimed towards writing 50,000 words in a month. A big event in writing communities everywhere, many writers use it to either write their first drafts or to edit current ones. Regardless of how you want to approach your latest project, there are a few tips that we learned from our experience this year that we wanted to share.

When we set our pen on a goal, we see it through no matter what. This year one of the biggest goals we had was to win Nano our first year participating. We wanted to write the first draft of a new fantasy novel idea that had been brewing for more than a year in the back of our mind. Was it easy? Absolutely not. Was it doable? One hundred percent, yes! We accomplished our goal and now we've got half of our novel finished in a record amount of time. Today we're diving into the resources we used, the methods and strategy we employed, and what the expectation versus the reality turned out to be.

To put things into perspective, our goal was to write fifty thousand words by November 30th. This was to be the first draft of a high fantasy novel that we'd been planning and developing for over a year.

We started out with a highly developed concept, characters, and most of the settings prior to October.

We wanted to be prepared. That was the first thing that came to mind when we made the decision to go for gold this year. We started with joining Preptober, the month before November used to plan, by researching items that would motivate us, keep us organized, and reward our efforts. The best part was that these were things we could use beyond Nano to help us with our writing year-round, many of which we'll use because they proved worthwhile.

Pictured: Stoneridge stickers and motivational binder

Here's what we used:

Stoneridge Stickers- We purchased their Preptober stickers that came in adorable pumpkin word count and fall-themed stickers perfect for bullet journals. They were pretty to look at and fun to use.

A notebook for outlining- Every writer has a favorite notebook. Pick a fresh one out for Preptober to collect all your ideas, character development, and plotline outlining as you go along. You can also use it to map out your goals.

A motivational binder- Fall back on this time-tested classic organizational piece but choose one that motivates you. It'll house your workbook below and will serve as a catch-all for stray notes and post-it's.

Natalia Leigh's Preptober Workbook- Looking for extra guidance, inspiration, and a way to keep track of your word count? Grab your copy of Natalia Leigh's Preptober Workbook. We used this during our planning and writing. We loved the motivational pages and creative tracking methods.

Rewards at varying price points- This can be anything you want really badly. It works best if you follow the Nano badges for word count goals on the official website. Start with small items like candy bars or a fun night out and work your way up to something you can't live without. Splurge for the big fifty!

Trello- Trello is an online project management program/app that keeps you organized. Featuring cards that can be rearranged and easy-to-use organizational tools it's a great way to keep your story organized and in one place without having to worry about losing it or getting ideas mixed up.

The official Nano website- A no-brainer if you're doing Nano then you'll want to sign up on the official website so you can tap into resources, word count trackers, writing goals, and writing buddies.

Accountability team- A group of writers who are also doing Nano can be instrumental to success. Having people to cheer you on and help you through story issues can make the journey both fun and

less stressful. Read How To Create An Accountability Group: For The Writer Who Needs Motivation to learn how!

Social Media- A great place to share your Nano writing journey, posting about it on social media helps you stay accountable. Plus it acts as a record keeper to all your hard work!

Spotify Music Playlist- We talk about this in our tips below, but having a playlist specific to your novel can be a powerful motivator.

Vision Boards- Similar to a playlist, a visual board on Pinterest that represents your novel can help you stay inspired and help you to describe places, people, and objects that appear in your book.

As a mix between planner and pantser, we knew that organization was going to play a large role in whether or not we were successful. We decided that the month of October most likely wasn't enough time to figure out every facet of the process and what we would need, so our planning started late September and carried over into Preptober. This proved smart because we weren't rushed and it allowed for random hindrances and ideas to arise without derailing our overall plan.

During Preptober we did a few things to put our best foot forward:

1) Invested time wisely- We developed our characters (who would carry the plot) and loosely mapped out our plotline (as a guide so I didn't get stuck along the way).

2) We created a reward system for each word count goal. We chose high-stakes items we knew we really wanted, like an instant pot for reaching fifty thousand words. We started with small rewards and worked our way up, which helped us feel like we were gaining momentum.

3) We worked out a writing strategy we knew would work based on previous habits. We planned to write more in the first two weeks because we knew we'd be excited and would have the energy to do so. Then in the second to third weeks we wrote according to mood, and finished it off slow and steady. We gave ourselves rest days later on to help balance fatigue and writing exhaustion, especially when we knew we'd be busy prepping for Thanksgiving.

What we planned:

  • Our overall book concept/theme

  • General outline

  • The ending

  • Characters

  • Setting

  • Worldbuilding

  • Word count

  • Writing strategy

  • Rewards list

What we pantsed:

  • Our social media

  • Outline details

  • Setting and worldbuilding

  • Minor characters

  • Days we wrote versus days we didn't

1. Planning Ahead Works:

If you've attempted Nano in the past but weren't able to complete it, the reason could be that you didn't plan enough. We know not everyone is a planner, but on a basic level winging everything from your idea to your word count won't work. The main reason is because you haven't done what's necessary to make sure you're setting yourself up for success, therefore success cannot be expected. Do you need to plan everything? No! How much you plan and what you plan is completely up to you and your writing style/needs. The best plan is the one that caters to your particular struggles and strengths. Bare minimum, there are two aspects that you should absolutely plan: your plotline and your writing strategy. Plotline so you know where you're going next and writing strategy so you know how quickly you need to cover each chapter to make the deadline.

2. Mindset Is Everything:

There's a reason why they say mindset matters. It's the determining factor between winning and losing, and here's why: When the excitement tapers off and the real work begins (around the end of the first week) you have to be able to sit down and keep going. When you would rather spend time with your family or binge watch Netflix, you have to force yourself to write instead. Even harder, you have to keep yourself going those last three days- even when all you want to do is quit and lounge in your post-Thanksgiving coma. To do that, you've got to be mentally tough- tough on yourself so you stay disciplined and tough enough to keep writing past the fatigue.

3. Accountability Matters:

One thing that motivates us to finish a project more than anything else, is knowing that other people are aware of what we're trying to accomplish. By sharing our Nano goals and process on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter we not only had support when we needed it, but we felt like we couldn't let those people down. We had to keep going for them and that's ultimately what kept us motivated even when we wanted to quit.

4. Settle Your Responsibilities:

This is a big one. Life happens. We all have responsibilities outside of our writing whether it's a day job, chores, children, partners, family, holidays- you name it. The point is that there will always be something standing between you and your writing, particularly during November which is admittedly a terrible time to attempt to write a novel for obvious reasons. The truth is that none of that matters. Whether you succeed in writing your novel or not depends solely on your will power. If you prioritize your writing in your top three things to do each day, then you will wind up with a novel. The problem is that when we fail, we tend to blame it on our busy schedules. Truthfully there's always time to write, just like there's always time to make excuses on why we aren't. You either do it or you don't.

5. Expect The Unexpected

Plan for things to go wrong! We can't stress this enough. Often disappointment happens when we set our sights on perfection rather than keeping ourselves grounded. If you typically only write five hundred words a week, then setting the bar to reaching the full fifty thousand in a month almost guarantees a self-esteem crash. Crazier things have happened and if you can pull a miracle one-eighty in all your habits then sure, it can happen. It's not impossible. But odds are you won't be changing that dramatically. Setting your word count to twenty thousand however is much more realistic and at the end of the month, an amazing accomplishment. Likewise, if you plan to participate in Nano and have the mindset that you're going to write the next great American novel, well my friend, you're also going to be rudely awakened. Binge writing never leads to perfection. That's what editing and polishing afterwards is for. If you approach this competition with unrealistic perceptions of your abilities or of the process in general, all you'll win is the bitter taste of dissatisfaction.

6. Music Makes The Muse

Music played a huge role in keeping up morale, especially in the later weeks. We created a Spotify playlist that we felt best represented our story, its characters, and our genre in general. Listening to it lifted our spirits, helped put us back into the mindset of writing and inspired more than its fair share of scenes. Without it, Nano wouldn't have been the same. It also helped us to segment our time of writing versus not writing, meaning if the music was on, we wrote and that was it. Doing so limited distractions and staved off the urge to scroll on other websites or play on our phone. We left the competition with a unique moment in time saved in a playlist we can revisit and share with our readers once we publish. Plus now there's songs out there that directly remind us of our work- how cool is that?

7. Sprints Pay Off

One writing method that proved its weight in gold during Nano was writing sprints. Prior to the competition we'd never tried them before but now we're hooked! It kept us writing effectively through limiting distractions, by getting us to sit down and write, and by making it feel like we were writing for less time than we actually were. All of this makes an impact the further along into the month you get, when motivation dies off and all you want to do is procrastination or quit. Starting the days you feel like doing anything other than write with a thirty minute sprint tricks your mind into thinking you're only going to write for a short amount of time. It's easier to sit down and do it if you think it'll go quick. The great thing about this method is that rarely do you only write for those thirty minutes. Typically it leads to longer periods and more words. Before you know it you've written a thousand words in an hour and a half and you've met your goal for the day.

8. Break Smart

Whoever said you can't take a breather during Nano was a sadist. Let's face it, we're humans. Humans need mental and physical breaks from work to function. That's a fact. It doesn't matter that Nano is a marathon and for those who try to write it without self-care in mind it can turn into a toxic pursuit. Placing a self-care routine fail-safe into your Preptober plan ensures that you take care of yourself while you write, something that writers struggle with even outside of this competition. One way you can do this is by planning to give yourself a break. Choosing to write more on days you feel energized and writing less on days when you don't helps. Giving yourself three days off throughout while accounting for the difference in the word counts of your other days is smart. It's all about balance and how effective you are at giving yourself what you need, when you need it.

9. Remember You're Shoveling Sand, Not Building A Castle

Author Shannon Hale once wrote, “I'm writing a first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”. Keeping this in mind, if you're tackling Nano in the traditional rule-abiding way this is exactly what you're doing. You're shifting through the sand and exploring all the possibilities of your idea. You're gathering materials to use for your accents once you have a castle shaped. But you're not shaping your castle yet, you're merely making a grainy mound. Now is the time to keep your outline close by so you know where to go without getting stuck, but it's also the time to deviate. If your character makes the opposite choice of what you wanted them to, let them. See where it takes them. If you feel inclined to make a decision based on the natural progression, trust your instincts. Chances are you'll wind up with something you can use. Now is the time to get messy and see what good things lie beneath the surface without worrying about what the outer appearance looks like.

10. Stay Positive

Lastly, and most importantly, stay positive! Writing is grueling, thankless work. One minute we feel like gods who created the perfect world and the next it's all dumpster fires and we fall to hell faster than Lucifer. At the end of the day it doesn't matter if you completed your goals or not. What matters is that you tried. If you started this and put more than two words down on the page- that's a win. If you wrote past where you got to last time- that's a win too. If you went all the way and won- that's also a win! Nano has no losers, just writers who are committed to evolving and making themselves better writers.

Overall, NaNoWriMo lives up to the hype of being an experience that every writer should try at least once. It completely changed our view of how we write novels and gave us the confidence we needed to keep going in what can be a ruthless industry. It highlighted exactly what excuses we were using to not write before and eliminated them. It showed us what was possible when we put writing as our number one priority. It inspired us to keep going because Everest can be climbed. It proved we have what it takes to reach the top. And boy, is that exhilarating!

What did we learn from our experience? That even the best intentions sometimes fail. That the best plan isn't perfect. That you can do hard things, but that doesn't make them easy. That for each time we fall, we have to adapt and try again...and again...and again. We can't give up.

Overall our expectations were on point. We thought that NaNoWriMo would be difficult. However, what we thought would be the hardest parts turned out to be the easier points whereas what we thought would be a piece of cake was more difficult than first impressions would have you believe. We thought the biggest challenge of Nano would be getting the words on the page. We were wrong. It turns out the truly difficult piece is that you have to learn how to keep yourself motivated. If you can't inspire yourself to write and cheer yourself on when you don't want to, then the words will never come. You have to believe in yourself. If you don't, then you'll never succeed.

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